Rolling Your Own Applications

Ready to roll your own apps? Here's why programming may soon be as easy as snapping together Legos.

By Om Malik, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Just imagine having the programming chops to build a video-sharing site that's as good as YouTube. Or being able to hack together your own little Salesforce clone - a way to manage your sales contacts and other customers, just for yourself and your co-workers.

Sounds neat, right? Cheap too. Instead of paying $65 per month, you'd build it once and use it forever.

Now imagine being able to do this with a few clicks of the mouse - without writing (or knowing) a single line of code.

Soon enough, you should be able to do all that and more, thanks to a number of startups building new ways to put the power of the programmer into the hands of mere mortals.

User-generated applications

Some of them, such as Palo Alto-based Ning, are targeting consumers, while others, such as Coghead, of Redwood City, Calif., and Teqlo, of nearby Santa Clara, are going after corporate markets. Smallthought Systems, of Vancouver, British Columbia, is focusing its Dabble DB software on users who like to do things their own way.

Big companies are starting to think along these lines as well: BEA Systems (Charts) has introduced two products, Project Runner and Project Builder, that target the DIY Fortune 500 crowd, and IBM (Charts) is throwing its hat into the ring with its QEDWiki project.

This trend of less programming and more assembly is just starting to gather steam, says Jeff Nolan, who recently left his gig at SAP (Charts) to become chief executive of one-year-old Teqlo, which lets people use a simple drag-and-drop interface to weave Web services together and build tiny apps.

You could take a feed from your shipping company and mash it up with real-time manufacturing data from your supplier, all tied to a sales report from an eBay store - that's the kind of app Teqlo would let you build. "If you have personalized homepages and user-generated content, then why can't you have user-generated applications?" Nolan reasons.

Why not, indeed?

As simple as drag and drop

Rolling your own applications wasn't seen as cost-effective until recently, because of the high cost of hardware, which required expert programmers to get your money's worth out of it. And closed or incompatible platforms made it tough to integrate software on the fly.

But the price of hardware and bandwidth has dropped precipitously, while Apache, Linux, MySQL, PHP, and other open-source products are bringing the sanity of standards to the Web. Newer technologies such as Ajax have also been a catalyst, making it possible to mimic a desktop experience within a browser. Putting all these breakthroughs together, these startups are building development environments that let the user cobble together software packages as easily as snapping together Lego bricks.

Paul McNamara, CEO of Coghead (see "The Next Disruptors," October), says his company is going after small workgroups that need custom apps but can't get the IT departments in their own corporations to devote the time. He points out that a lot of folks are well versed in writing Microsoft Excel macros and FileMaker-based applications without knowing a lick of programming.

Writing applications using Coghead, he says, is no more difficult.

Please note that McNamara's optimism, while understandable, doesn't mask the fact that the transition to this type of platform is going to be slow; I believe it could take about three years to realize its potential.

The environments have to become easier to use, and workers like you and me have to get comfortable with the idea that building our own apps is as easy as dragging and dropping a few components.

But I, for one, am ready for it.

Om Malik is a contributing writer for Business 2.0 and runs the popular technology blog GigaOm. Top of page

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